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24 hours in El Dorado

Arkansas's newest cultural destination.

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NEW BOOM FOR EL DORADO: The Murphy Arts District kicked off with performances by Brad Paisley and others.
  • NEW BOOM FOR EL DORADO: The Murphy Arts District kicked off with performances by Brad Paisley and others.

In case you missed it, El Dorado is making big moves. $100 million moves, to be specific. On Sept. 28, the former oil boomtown celebrated the grand opening of the Murphy Arts District with a marathon of concerts from Migos, Train, Brad Paisley, Smokey Robinson — a lineup that served as a sort of statement for what kind of lively arts community (and eclectic patronage) MAD wants to develop, in part to boost the recruitment efforts of three publicly traded companies with headquarters in the area: Murphy Oil, Murphy USA and Deltic Timber. If, like most of us, your reasons to venture down pine-lined U.S. Highway 167 for a weekend trip to El Dorado have come up short, here's a snapshot of how you might spend a day in and around the Union County town.

First: Pitstop

El Dorado is a trek from Central Arkansas. Stop off at Fordyce and find the Round Table Coffee Shop at 115 W. First St. It's about as quaint small-town-slice-of-life as it gets, and you'll find the locals chewing the fat over coffee, an early lunch or late breakfast pastry at the charming train depot-turned-cafe. From the front steps, you can see the courthouse where Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards were held after a 1975 arrest in the small town, an incident alluded to by the iconic tongue and lips on the sign for the nearby 4-Dice Restaurant, where the famously reckless rockers stopped for lunch.

Or pick up some Spudnuts

You might think a mention of El Dorado, even in its pre-MAD years, would garner comments about the South Arkansas Symphony, the state's longest-running, or the city's ambitious college scholarship program, the "El Dorado Promise." Mostly, though, people talk about the donuts. Since 1948, The Spudnut Shoppe Company Inc. at 810 W. Faulkner St. has been serving deceptively light, airy concoctions they call Spudnuts, so named because they're made of potato flour. When you visit, you may notice a perfunctory tray of flavored varieties on the counter — blueberry donuts and chocolate-covered Bavarian creme. Ignore it. What you're looking for is the unadulterated article, the plain glazed Spudnut. If you must have something to accompany it, make it black coffee. I'd recommend you accompany another dozen potato rings out the door for later, but you won't need my urging.

CRAZY FOR SPUDNUTS: Everyone is.
  • CRAZY FOR SPUDNUTS: Everyone is.

Stroll through HISTORY

El Dorado makes no bones about its strong corporate ties or its oil boom history, and there are homages all over to the town's oil boom history. The Oil Heritage Park downtown, for example, is a sculptural guided tour through the oil boom of 1921 and the events that came after. Plaques on the plaza at 101 E. Cedar St. tell the story of oil "wildcatters" like H.L. Hunt, C.H. Murphy and Pat Marr, and of the time when a gas cap over the so-called Norphlet Dome exploded and "made a crater 500 feet across and 150 deep, which swallowed up the rig, the derrick and all of the drilling equipment," resulting in the discovery of the Smackover Oil Field and the subsequent ballooning of populations of little towns Smackover and Norphlet in the following weeks. They describe the barrelhouses that popped up along "Hamburger Row," and the madams and moonshine sales that the El Dorado police force was too small to control. In 1976, Barnette Oil Co.'s J.T. and Joanne Barnette donated a 12-foot-tall band wheel, a pale green remnant of the cable tool-rig days that stands at the entrance to the plaza.

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Lunch like a local

You'll see lots of restaurant windowfronts in downtown El Dorado — the sprawling covered patio of the Laredo Grill, the cozy red brick Black Cat — but if you want to eat like you're from El Dorado, walk a couple of blocks southwest to 211 S. West Ave. Once called Woody's Grill, as a vintage photo on the walls inside reveals, Johnny B's is an unpretentious, family-run diner with little fanfare, and if the dining room was any indication of the typical crowd, it's clearly earned the devotion of the locals. The greasy spoon is tiny, with a curved corner window, a glass brick facade, loads of Coca-Cola paraphernalia and giant images of taco salads and breakfast plates lovingly rendered by airbrush on the windows. Plates piled high with curly bacon and chicken fried steaks emerge from a tiny window above a glass pie case, and you can order anything from burgers to Belgian waffles to boiled shrimp to the LLJ, an all dark-meat turkey patty served with peppered bacon and a bacon aioli that takes its name from the initials of the owner's three grandchildren.

Take a museum tour

MAD didn't start from scratch; El Dorado's MusicFest, its multimillion-dollar El Dorado High School Performing Arts Center and adjacent educational programs paved the way for the new arts district, and the town has a few museums to check out, too. The South Arkansas Arts Center at 110 E. Fifth St. celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014 and features rotating exhibits in its three gallery spaces. If you don't mind a 15-minute detour, hop over to the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover, where there's a labyrinthian hall of exhibits on the science of oil extraction and refinement, as well as exhibits on the culture that sprung up around the drilling sites — cut-rate sleeper trains between Little Rock and El Dorado and depictions of after-sundown chaos in the lawless "Death Valley" to Smackover's north. (Did you know that Vaseline's active ingredient was discovered on the first oil rigs? Or that there was a circus performer named Rhene Salome Miller Meyer who became famous as Smackover's "Goat Woman" for singing opera, raising goats and playing seven instruments at once?) For devotees of Civil War history or antebellum architecture, the Newton House Museum, owned by the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, sits at 510 N. Jackson St. and offers a look at what life was like for a plantation owner in 1849 (spoiler: It was pretty cush.)

Happy Hour!

Speaking of the seedier side of El Dorado's past, Hill's Recreation Parlor at 205 E. Cedar St. — right in the epicenter of the Murphy Arts District — is the oldest running pool hall in the state, and it's not going anywhere. In fact, the Murphy Arts District project includes a renovation of the hall, whose back patio will serve as a de facto smoker's oasis outside the otherwise smoke-free MAD Amphitheater. Grab a cold one here before dinner, or enjoy a game of snooker.

Dinner

Part of developing a lively community is feeding people, and Dan Smith — the vice president of food and beverages for the Cleveland Indians and now vice president and general manager of the Murphy Arts District — aims to do it well. The Griffin Restaurant, a 200-seat "industrial chic" farm-to-table operation with a 100-foot sculpture of an oil drill outside, sits between MAD's two major entertainment venues and features signature cocktails and locally sourced plates. Excepting seafood, The Griffin stocks its kitchen from growers within a 150-mile radius of El Dorado, and features its farm partners on a mural inside. The wine list is a mile long and the booze offerings are plentiful: a Griffin Tree Sap made with Rocktown Distillery bourbon, maple simple syrup, Cointreau and blackberries; a Mad Margarita made with Sauza Blue-Silver tequila; and an El Dorado Tornado with Myers' rum, fresh orange juices, grenadine and Grand Marnier. You can keep it light with a Farmer's Market salad or a crudite plate with The Griffin's Smokin' Gorgi sauce, or feast on the Tournedos Griffin, two filet mignons atop grilled green tomatoes, one served with a red wine reduction and one with a Bearnaise. There's a Boat of Barbecue Shrimp with barbecue butter; a duck and Andouille gumbo; the Razorback and Mac cavatappi baked with three cheeses and pulled pork; and the signature jambalaya, made from Ralston Family Farms rice with andouille, Tasso ham, chicken and shrimp. And, in the event you didn't get your fill of Spudnuts earlier, or need a quick reminder, there's a dessert dish called The Lost Spudnut that makes use of the day-old offerings from the donut mainstay down the street. Make a reservation at eldomad.com/griffinrestaurant. If you go on a Thursday night, there's live entertainment within; otherwise, you can visit the adjacent Griffin Music Hall or MAD Amphitheater for some after-dinner entertainment.

MURPHY GOES LIVE: Ludacris performs at Griffin Music Hall as part of the grand opening celebration of the MAD.
  • MURPHY GOES LIVE: Ludacris performs at Griffin Music Hall as part of the grand opening celebration of the MAD.

See a show

The MAD launch concerts were only the beginning; check the lineup at eldomad.com for a calendar of shows at the elegant 2,000-seat Griffin Music Hall or the lush outdoor MAD Amphitheater. If you've got children, don't miss the adjacent playscape, one of the largest in the state.

Stay downtown

Should your boomtown revelry render the two-hour trip back to Central Arkansas a non-option, curl up at the Union Square Guest Quarters, a collection of 31 rooms and suites sprinkled across downtown El Dorado. Acommodations range from a four-bedroom 1925 oil boom mansion to more modest suites, all of which are within walking distance of the entertainment district and come with access to the Healthworks Fitness Center, a complimentary breakfast served in the old Central of Georgia train coach and a discounted rate on packages at the nearby Spa on Main.


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